CHICAGO — A few years back, I profiled an identity theft victim who didn’t learn that someone had been using his very common Hispanic name to obtain jobs and credit until the IRS came after him for thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.
At the time, state’s attorneys, law enforcement officials and immigration experts told me that legal immigrants, naturalized citizens and U.S.-born residents with common ethnic names were increasingly being targeted by illegal immigrants who resort to stealing plausible identities to find jobs.
As bad as that is for an adult, just imagine how much worse it would be if you were already a longtime victim of identity theft as a minor.
This very thing just happened to a Hispanic student at one of the high schools near my home. She was filling out her applications for college when she discovered that, for years, someone else had been using her name and Social Security number. Worse, the person was someone she had trusted.
“Children are actually being targeted at a rate 35 times greater than adults — one in every 40 households in America has at least one child that has been victimized by ID theft,” said Robert Chappell, a lieutenant with the Virginia State Police and the author of the book “Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know.”
“Twenty-seven percent of the children victimized knew the person and it was either a close family member, extended family member or a friend,” said Chappell, who told me that criminals use the identities to gain credit cards, employment, medical insurance and government benefits.
“That’s an emotional no-win situation for the child because if they’re one of the 73 percent who didn’t know who did this to them, they’re left with the feeling that their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them. The [other] 27 percent feel personally violated and believe their parent specifically targeted them for victimization, plus they’re often left with the inability to clean the mess up themselves.”
A child is especially vulnerable in such a situation because the most important thing a victim can do is go to the police and report that they’ve had a crime committed against them.
But in the case of a relative or close family friend “borrowing” a child’s name, date of birth and Social Security number, the child’s parents might be unwilling to get the authorities involved.
“One of the first critical steps is reporting the crime to the police. But many times, family members are unwilling to turn their relatives or family friends into the police, and without that police report, credit agencies are very reluctant to clean up the child’s record,” Chappell said. “The standard of proof is the police report, so without it the child is left with damaged credit and it doesn’t go away when they turn 18.”
Much like the young woman I mentioned earlier, many children are learning that this crime has been committed against them when they apply for a driver’s license, to college or for their first jobs.
As for whether Latinos are at outsized risk for this kind of crime, Chappell noted that he was unaware of any definitive research on the subject. But, he added, “there are particular traits or characteristics that increase your risk. In particular, if an illegal immigrant is looking for an identity to steal, then they want to steal from someone who either resembles them or is of the same culture so they can pass off the stolen name as their own.”
“In general, the lower income you have, the more at risk you are for identity theft. People with fewer means don’t have the luxury of safes or lockboxes.”
Safeguard your child’s identity by understanding that their names and data have great financial value to others. Get them thorough credit reports that include manual searches on their Social Security numbers to weed out criminals who frequently use close-enough names and birthdates to fool creditors.
If it uncovers wrongdoing that can be repaired, your kids will benefit from your efforts for the rest of their lives.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.